By Sallie Brady
Time-honored but long undervalued, sculpture is coming into its own as a collecting phenomenon.
“World record for the artist, world record for the artist,” says David Norman, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art worldwide.
“That one is a 40 percent increase over the last price realized.” Norman is going through recent sculpture sales in New York, London and Paris, ticking off records not just for market stars—like Alberto Giacometti, who famously made $104.3 million in 2010 for L’Homme qui Marche I, or Jeff Koons, whose Balloon Flower (Magenta) is still the record-setter for contemporary sculpture, having sold in 2008 at Christie’s for $25.7 million—but for worthy if less hyped artists such as Julio González, Jacques Lipchitz and David Smith. Across the pond at Christie’s, Giovanni Bertazzoni, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department, echoes her counterpart, reciting recent million-dollar hammer prices for sculptures by Max Ernst, Marino Marini and Jean Arp.
Sculpture is finally having its moment. From the works of these European modernists to Renaissance bronzes and neoclassical marbles to monumental contemporary installations and pieces by emerging regional artists, the collecting market seems to be developing a serious appetite for three-dimensional art.
The auction houses will tell you that’s because sculpture has been largely undervalued. Only in the past decade has the category attracted the interest of some of the world’s top collectors in their furious quest to own an artist’s absolute finest works. “If you are waiting for the best painting, you’re going to be frustrated,” says Norman, “but when it comes to sculpture or works on paper, there are opportunities. I think people now are more willing to pursue an A+ sculpture than a B+ painting.”
“You can still buy very good quality and very good provenance,” says Bertazzoni. “But it’s an area where you need to know your stuff—patina, editions, life and posthumous casts.”
Norman believes that collectors began to take sculpture more seriously following the seminal 1997 exhibition of highlights from Raymond and Patsy Nasher’s vast and deep 20th-century sculpture collection at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which that took New York by storm. Today the collection is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in the late couple’s hometown of Dallas.
The market began to percolate in the early 2000s and has since continued upward. Veteran dealer José Tasende, founder of Tasende Gallery in La Jolla, Calif., opened his doors in 1979, selling then-little-known artists such as Giacomo Manzu, Eduardo Chillida and Niki de Saint-Phalle, as well as Henry Moore and Fernando Botero. “In the old times, I would sell a big Henry Moore for $150,000. Today it will make $5 million or $6 million at auction,” says Tasende. “I had to fight to introduce Chillida to America, but the museum directors supported me. Now I’m trying to buy back a sculpture I sold to a collector in 1980 for $37,000. I’m willing to pay half a million dollars.”
Auction house specialists and dealers alike say prices are also being driven up by new buyers of sculpture from the art world’s growth markets: Russia, the Middle East and Asia. “At the moment, Chinese clients are entering the market through Impressionist sculpture and works by Picasso,” says Bertazzoni. “And Rodin is popular in Mainland China.”
Tasende concurs: “Most of our clients are dealers, not just in New York and Germany but today also in Hong Kong and Singapore.”
The market may be one factor, but the way we live today is another force contributing to the sculpture surge—and that applies to all price points. Architects and interior designers will tell you that homeowners want to live with light and windows. Sculptures that today can be fully enjoyed with 360-degree views in a naturally lit space just wouldn’t have worked in a 1980s Park Avenue apartment with an opulent layering of heavy drapery, antique furniture and densely patterned fabrics. To make room for those windows, wall space that was once taken up by oil paintings and japanned bookcases is shrinking, forcing collectors to find other ways to indulge their love of showcasing art. The portability of sculpture is appealing to urban collectors and small-space dwellers—or those who like to keep their collection in rotation. The popularity of open-plan interiors means large, often high-ceilinged rooms that offer excellent opportunities to display larger pieces of antique and contemporary sculpture, again with proper views.
Dino Tomasso, of the U.K.-based Tomasso Brothers, one of the world’s leading dealers of medieval to neo-classical European sculpture, agrees that contemporary design taste has brought in a new collector of traditional sculpture. “Over the last few years there has definitely been a marked crossover between contemporary collectors and the antique sculpture world. It’s becoming more à la mode to mix period sculpture with contemporary paintings,” says Tomasso. “At fairs, we have sold to people who are primarily contemporary collectors.” The Tomassos will be showing next month at New York’s International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show (October 21–27) and at the Otto Neumann Gallery (October 20–November 4). Their stand wowed crowds at London’s Masterpiece Fair in June and July with a stunning pair of monumental Florentine marble lions ripping into the flesh of a horse and a bull attributed to Giovanni Battista Foggini and workshop. The marbles won the event’s “Object of the Fair” prize. Asking price? £1.7 million.
Marbles will have another moment this fall when Sotheby’s Paris and the Piasa auction house hold a highly anticipated sale of the stock of three-generation dealer Fabius Frères Gallery (October 26–27). Among the contents of the 400 lots from the prestigious Boulevard Haussmann shop, which was shuttered in April, are 190 mostly 19th-century French sculptures that include not just highly desirable animalier bronzes by Antoine-Louis Barye but some of the most important marbles by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux ever to come to auction. The sale is estimated to fetch €4–9 million. Carpeaux famously designed the facade of the Paris Opera—the plaster maquette is in the sale. Even more spectacular are the life-size marbles that the gallery’s original founder, Elie Fabius (who traded from the 1890s to the 1940s) and his heirs treasured so much that they kept them priced high enough that they would never leave the gallery. The enchanting Daphnis and Chloé (est. $1.4–2.1 million), from 1874, is destined to be one of the sale’s star lots.
Marble and bronze are some of the most traditional, and enduring, mediums for sculpture, but Francis Outred, head of post-war and contemporary art for Europe at Christie’s, says it’s the diversity of materials being used in contemporary sculpture that makes the category so intriguing to collectors. “Sixty years ago there was bronze and iron, and today there’s resin, steel, plexiglass…. The variety of mediums creates a very rich scene of creativity for artists.”
Prices for contemporary sculpture also continue to climb with the likes of Jim Hodges, Cady Noland, Donald Judd and Ellsworth Kelly all now into the millions. John Chamberlain’s Nutcracker (1958), in Sotheby’s Allan Stone sale in New York last May, made $4.7 million against a $1.3–1.8 million estimate—a record for the artist.
Chief among trends in the contemporary category is monumental sculpture with a real “wow” factor. A prime example is Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Lamp/Bear), a 22-foot high, 20-ton replication of the Swiss artist’s childhood teddy illuminated with a desklamp-like hat, all fashioned of cast bronze, epoxy primer, paint, glass, steel and polyurethane, in an edition of three. After devoting considerable resources to bring the bear to Park Avenue for public viewing in the spring, Christie’s sold him to fierce bidding in May. The upon-request estimate of $3–6 million was bested when a private collector snatched him up for $6.8 million. Christie’s discreetly noted in the catalogue that the “successful buyer will be responsible for post-auction costs”—in other words, hire your own forklift. The upshot is all good for Fischer, who was already a rising star. The previous record for the artist was $1.5 million, according to Outred.
More monumental sculpture is for sale through the end of this month at “Material Worlds, Sotheby’s at Sudeley Castle: A Selling Exhibition,” with 11 pieces on offer by the likes of Ingo Maurer and Tord Boontje.
Thanks to organizations such as the Sculpture Foundation, a Santa Monica-based private group that loans monumental sculpture to parks and cities, you don’t have to buy a massive work of art to experience it. At any one time 200 of the foundation’s works are on show around the world, says director Paula Stoeke. This fall, the Sculpture Foundation partners with the city of West Hollywood, Calif., mounting seven large works by noted contemporary artists. Also on the West Coast, look for the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art’s California Sculpture Slam, through September 30, featuring the work of 64 California artists.
Public sculpture has become such a part of daily life, particularly in cities and public spaces, that some say it can even be an antidote to depression and loneliness. Maggie DeDecker, an owner of the Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail, Colo., which specializes in sculpture depicting historical Western life and wildlife, says that clients include municipalities, hospitals even veterinary clinics. “The pieces themselves become institutions at these places. You see people tie scarves around them in the winter and children kiss them and climb on them. There’s a lot to be said for the staying power of bronze.”
The late Allan Houser, considered the first Native American sculptor, is an artist widely on-view not just in the American West, but, as the centenary of his birth approaches in 2014, throughout the country. Look for a special exhibition next year at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem., Mass., and an ongoing exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art, on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where Houser was an artist-in-residence. The Allan Houser Gallery in Santa Fe handles the artist’s works, which include life-size sculptures that sell in the six figures.
Many dealers believe that it’s been the proliferation of public sculpture and sculpture gardens in the latter decades of the 20th century that has made collectors comfortable with the idea of creating a sculpture garden at home. “The thinking used to be that something like that was reserved for corporate collections or estates,” says Brigitte Micmacker, the proprietor of Sculpturesite Gallery in Sonoma, Calif. The 21-year veteran of the sculpture trade, who has had outdoor galleries in Berkeley and an indoor gallery in San Francisco, says outdoor sculpture gardens have really taken off in the past 5 to 10 years, and lately the demand for kinetic sculptures has been particularly strong. Ranging from tabletop pieces to monumental works, kinetics offer a fourth dimension—movement. “People are fascinated by them,” says Micmacker. “By the engineering, the counter-weighting and counter-balance. It allows some people who are not art collectors to take the plunge.” Mark White Fine Art in Santa Fe has also seen a healthy demand for kinetic sculptures, which White, the artist, produces in a variety of colors, shapes and patinas.
While technology and engineering marvels have given many contemporary works a literal spin, some artists prefer to work in more traditional media, with stunning results. Susan Collett, a Canadian artist represented by the Oeno Gallery in Prince Edward County, situated halfway between Toronto and Montreal, creates highly organic pierced ceramics that look like they just washed up with the surf. “It’s very hard to get any of Susan’s works,” says gallery owner Carlyn Moulton. “We’re lucky to get three or four pieces a year. She’s virtually unknown outside of Canada, but recently won an artist residency in China.”
Richard MacDonald is a a figurative artist who also works in clay, inspired by dance and the grace of the human body.
In Britain, stone is the medium of choice for two award-winning contemporary artists. Egyptian-born Yves Dana, who was a pupil of French modernist Ossip Zadkine, creates architecturally-inspired pieces of yellow limestone from the Sinai Desert. The Robert Bowman Modern gallery will run an exhibition of Dana’s work from October 28–January 31. Emily Young, a brilliant stone-carver, uses richly grained pieces of marble and stone to create heads of angels and figures that look more like antiquities than 21st-centuries works of art. Young is represented by London’s Fine Art Society.
Come this autumn season, there will be a fresh round of gallery shows featuring great sculpture as well as important auctions, but there will also be a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that will make sculpture lovers weak in the knees when “Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes,” the first-ever U.S. exhibition devoted to the Renaissance master, opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on November 6 (it runs through April 8, 2012 and moves to The Frick Collection, May 1–July 29).
The output of this Mantuan sculptor, who closely studied ancient Roman statuary, and then recreated its forms and themes with his own delicate twist, was so limited, estimated at 50 to 60 pieces, say curators, that it’s a coup that the museum can show 40 works. The show features medals, reliefs, busts and Antico’s famous statuettes with silvered eyes, gilded locks and drapery that showcase his goldsmith training. The museum worked hard to coax pieces out of private collections, including a recently discovered sculpture that curator Eleonora Luciano says was found in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke. But, she laments, there were privately owned Anticos she couldn’t coax into the exhibition. “These people collect many things, but they are so passionate about their Anticos,” says Luciano. “They don’t want to be away from them. It’s very touching. They say they would miss them.”